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Soldiers Free 12 Hostages Held by Colombian Rebels

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A small rebel army thought until recently to have faded into obscurity kidnapped and then released a dozen residents of the northern Colombian town of Ocana on Monday, a police commander said, in an incident that suggested yet another threat to this country’s troubled peace process.

The abductions set off two confrontations with soldiers, who conducted a successful rescue attempt, and brought the Popular Liberation Army, known as the EPL, more notoriety than it has enjoyed in nearly a decade.

Thought to number just a few hundred fighters, the EPL had been all but dismissed by analysts as an insignificant participant in Colombia’s decades-old civil conflict.

Military authorities initially reported that as many as 40 people had been kidnapped shortly before 6 a.m. at a roadblock manned by about 15 EPL members, officials said. The local police commander, Col. Rafael Cepeda, blamed the inflated number on confusion that arose when the rebels stopped a school bus but did not take any passengers captive.

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A few hours after the abductions, military sources announced that their troops had fought twice with the retreating rebels, leading to the release of all the captives.

Two of the liberated kidnapping victims were injured in the melee, and a female insurgent died, said Gen. Martin Orlando Carreno, commander of the 5th Brigade, which conducted the mission.

Former peace negotiator Camilo Gonzalez said, “This is an attempt to make its presence felt by an organization [that had been] considered reduced, almost nonexistent.” He said the EPL recently sought a dialogue with the government and was eager to initiate peace talks.

While the ambush may have turned into a tactical blunder, it underscored an ongoing publicity push. In the last two months, the same group has kidnapped a popular folk singer and an archbishop.

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For nine months, the Colombian government has participated in on-again, off-again negotiations with Colombia’s largest and most prominent guerrilla army, the 15,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. But President Andres Pastrana has been reluctant to negotiate with less powerful players in the conflict, a stance that has earned him many detractors.

“It is part of the perversity of this confrontation that those responsible for more and more violence against civilians receive greater attention in some spheres of the government,” Gonzalez said.


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